ALEPPO, Syria – The presence of foreign Islamic militants battling Syria’s regime is raising concerns over the possible injection of al-Qaida’s influence into the country’s civil war.
Syria’s rebels share some of those misgivings. But they also see in the foreign extremists a welcome boost: experienced, disciplined fighters whose battlefield valor against the better-armed troops of President Bashar Assad is legendary.
Nothing typifies the dilemma more than Jabhat al-Nusra, a shadowy group with an al-Qaida-style ideology whose fighters come from Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Balkans and elsewhere. Many are veterans of previous wars who came to Syria for what they consider a new “jihad” against Assad.
The group has become notorious for numerous suicide bombings during the 19-month-old conflict targeting regime and military facilities. Syria’s rebels have tried to disassociate themselves from the bombings for fear their uprising will be tainted with the al-Qaida brand.
But several hundred fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra – Arabic for “the Support Front” – have also been a valued addition to rebel ranks in the grueling, three-month battle for control of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city.
Their reputation in battle circulates among Aleppo’s rebels like an urban legend. Soon after opposition forces launched their assault on the city in July, government troops almost drove them out of the key district of Salaheddin – until 40 Jabhat al-Nusra fighters rushed to the front and fended them off, according to a story told by many rebels.
The group’s fighters have played a similar role along the multitude of front lines that divide this city of 3 million people, where regime forces and rebels have been at a standstill, fighting street to street but unable to score a decisive victory. Many rebels talk of the al-Nusra fighters’ prowess as snipers.
“They rush to the rescue of rebel lines that come under pressure and hold them,” one rebel said. “They know what they are doing and are very disciplined. They are like the special forces of Aleppo.”
But he added: “The only thing is that they are too radical.” He spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals by both Jabhat al-Nusra and the Assad regime.
In a statement posted on militant websites Wednesday, Jabhat al-Nusra rejected a proposed cease-fire during the four-day Muslim Eid al-Adha holiday, which starts Friday. International envoy Lakhdar Brahimi has been trying to cobble together such a truce, saying the government in Damascus and some rebels have agreed to the idea.
But Jabhat al-Nusra called a truce a “filthy game,” saying it has no faith that Assad’s regime would respect one. Some Syrian rebel leaders have also expressed skepticism, since previous cease-fire attempts have gone nowhere.
Jabhat al-Nusra is the largest grouping of foreign jihadis in Syria, and the rebels say they number about 300 fighters in Aleppo, as well as branches in neighboring Idlib province, the city of Homs and the capital Damascus. Any direct links to al-Qaida are unclear, although U.S. and Iraqi officials have said they believe members of al-Qaida’s branch in Iraq have crossed the border to join the fight against Assad.
There are no reliable figures for the number of foreign fighters in Syria, although available estimates put the number in the hundreds, rather than the thousands.
Many al-Nusra fighters wear long tunics and baggy pants in the style of mujahedeen or “holy warriors” in Afghanistan, and nearly all have beards, a hallmark of religious piety. A few smear kohl on their eyes and have long hair, emulating what they believe is a style favored by Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century.
The fighters keep a low profile. They have turned a government building in Aleppo into their headquarters, but it is barely noticeable since it contains no banners or flags to give it away. Rebels who spoke with the Associated Press about the group had no clear idea about its leadership.
The fighters shun the media, but information gleaned from Syrians in contact with them paints a picture of militant Muslims motivated by a jihadi ideology not unlike that of al-Qaida. Their members include propagandists, trainers, surgeons and other medical doctors.
Many Syrian rebels are themselves pious Muslims who frame the fight against Assad’s regime in a religious context. But some see the jihadis’ brand of Islam as too starkly black-and-white and intolerant, dividing the world between the faithful and the infidels.
Still, in Aleppo, the image of pious Islamic warriors coming to help in the fight against Assad is an attractive one. Though Jabhat al-Nusra is predominantly made up of foreigners, a few Syrians have joined, mostly ultraconservative Muslims.